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A Latin American Christmas Tradition Takes On New Meaning Along The Border


In Mexico and parts of Latin America, it's the season for Las Posadas, a tradition that reenacts the story of Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem. In the biblical accounts, Mary and Joseph are weary travelers, seeking shelter but finding no room. Eventually, one innkeeper takes pity on them and allows them to stay in a stable, where Mary gives birth to the baby Jesus. For some along the U.S.-Mexico border, the Christmas story has also become a commentary on immigration policy, as NPR's Liz Baker reports from the 26th Annual Posada Sin Fronteras in San Ysidro, Calif.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

LIZ BAKER, BYLINE: Usually, this posada song is a cross-border call and response, worshipers on the Tijuana side singing Mary and Joseph's request for lodging and the Americans responding as the innkeeper, granting shelter, both sides right up against the border, close enough to sing to each other, even to touch each other through the fence and share this Christmas tradition as though there were no rusty wall keeping them apart. That's the idea behind La Posada Sin Fronteras - the Posada Without Borders.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

BAKER: But this year, it's not just the border wall keeping people apart. The river flooded the usual location in Friendship Park, forcing the U.S. group to relocate. So instead, the group of a hundred or so people are getting as close as they can - the parking lot behind a busy outlet mall a few meters away from an official port of entry.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah, good job. We did it. Welcome. (Speaking Spanish).

BAKER: In traditional posadas, neighbors and friends gather at each other's homes each night before Christmas, asking for and granting posada.

RAMIRO CHAN: To give posada means to receive people, to make people your own, to accept it into your house. That's what the meaning of posada.

BAKER: Father Ramiro Chan is a priest with Our Lady of Guadalupe church in nearby Chula Vista. This is his third time attending La Posada Sin Fronteras but his first time attending on the U.S. side.

CHAN: It's very different. The feeling to be in the other side of the world asking for posada - that different. That's - it's the feeling of the people that - they don't have chance to ask for posada in any other place. Or they have been asking for posada for years, and they are still there. So I think that the feeling that Mary and Joseph felt when they were just walking and walking and walking and nobody opened the door for them.

BAKER: San Diego Bishop John Dolan says he understands that some of the Catholics he preaches to might not want to tie immigration policy debate to the holidays. But...

JOHN DOLAN: You know, if we're going to celebrate Christmas, we got to celebrate it all.

BAKER: That celebration is bittersweet for United Methodist pastor Tonya Rios. She walks with a small wooden cross scrawled with words in black marker.

TONYA RIOS: In memory nuestros caildos. In memory of the people who die.

BAKER: Specifically, her brother, who fled violence in El Salvador but was not granted asylum in the U.S. When he was sent back, says Rios, he was murdered.

RIOS: It's very painful for us. But this remind us - we need to continue fighting because we need to be together. We need to be together.

BAKER: It's stories like Rios' that emphasized the Posada Sin Fronteras' political undertones. Still, this posada is mainly a spiritual experience. Participant Martay Riley (ph) says she values the opportunity to pray alongside worshipers on the Mexican side of the border.

MARTAY RILEY: That's what's so powerful about it. There's nothing like knowing that someone has your back, even if they're far away or you can't see them or touch them. I really feel these kinds of things break down barriers.

BAKER: Especially, she says, around Christmastime.

Liz Baker, NPR News, San Ysidro, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Liz Baker